A different reading difficutlery

Screenshot anime Chihayafuru. Something scary has been seen.

Panic zone. OK, perhaps we should have started with something easier.

I am going to quote something from my fiction in progress. It is about someone reading a supposedly non-fiction book which covers ever more unfamiliar concepts. It is a little autobiographical, but not totally. In real life, it is more common that different books are similar to the different chapters I describe here.

[FICTION]The first three chapters of The Book of Dimensions had been quite readable. The first was almost childish, so easy was it to read, as if written for school kids. The second chapter, on time, was more on my level. The third chapter took some concentration and stretching of the mind to read: It was written with mostly common words, but the meaning of the text was uncommon, so it took some effort to “get it”. It was well worth the effort, though.

The fourth chapter, on the sixth dimension, was quite a bit harder to read. There were some more long and uncommon words, and the sentences seemed to be longer too, and the paragraphs. Not a lot in either case, but it did seem like that to me. The real difference was that it was really hard to get. The words made sense, and the sentences made sense. Some of them were brilliant and memorable. But others were just out of grasp. I felt that I should have understood them, but I did not get it. And the sentences did not get together to form a clear, bright picture this time. It was more like a dark garden with lots and lots of pretty fireflies, but they just danced around and I could not get the whole picture.

Peeking into the next chapter, it was simply unreadable. There were perhaps a few more long and unusual words than in the previous chapter again, and perhaps the sentences were a little longer, or perhaps it was the paragraphs, but that was not the problem. The problem was that even when the words were familiar, the things they said were bordering on gibberish. It was like if I would say to you: “The work of the wind is too heavy for the blue in the kitchen to exonerate.” Even if you happened to know what exonerate means, that would not help. It would still not really make sense. Or at least it would be impossible to believe.  [END FICTION]

In the case of our fictional friend here, the solution was to go back the next day and read over again the last chapter he had understood when he stretched his mind. Not the chapter he had just barely failed to understand, but the one before it. Then a week later, to read it again. Only when the knowledge or understanding of that chapter had been absorbed as a part of himself, could he understand the next chapter.


Some reading difficulties are mechanical. You could have dyslexia, or poor eyesight, or you may be unfamiliar with the language or the script. For instance, I have fairly recently learned to read hiragana, the Japanese “letters” that represent syllables in that language. By now I recognize them on sight, but reading a text in hiragana is still painstakingly slow, even if I only had to read it out loud rather than understand it. Even an unfamiliar font (typeface) can make a difference at this level.

Even if you have the reading skill automated, unfamiliar words can still trip up the flow of the text. If you are studying a new skill, users of that skill probably have their own words for things. Or even worse, they may use familiar words in an unfamiliar way, meaning something else than we are familiar with. The concept I call “reading difficutlery” begins at this level and stretches into the next. It is like reading difficulty, only not really.

The next level is where we know what the words mean, and every sentence we read makes sense grammatically. But we still don’t get it. It does not gel, as some say. It does not come together in a meaningful whole. There are a lot of sentences, but they are like “fireflies in the night”: Even if they are bright individually, they stand alone, and don’t get together into a picture.

It could be that the author really does not have a clear picture to convey, or writes badly. But if others get it, then probably not. As I have mentioned before, something like this happens when I read Frithjof Schuon, not to mention Sri Aurobindo. Better men than I insist that these books are awesome and full of insight, but my first meeting with each of them was not unlike running into a gelatin wall: I did not get very far into it.

In the case of the two examples mentioned, I kept reading the writings where I had first seen them recommended, and absorbed some of their thinking indirectly. I also read other books recommended by those who recommended Schuon and Aurobindo in the first place. Slowly, a little each day or at least most days of the week, I have eased into that kind of understanding. But to people who are completely unfamiliar with esoteric teachings, it probably looks like meaningless babble punctuated by the occasional unfamiliar word.

It is a bit strange that I don’t remember a lot of examples of this from my life. C.G. Jung was like that, but that’s pretty much the only case I remember. It seems to me that for most of my life, reading non-fiction was very easy to me. I did not have to read things more than once, and even then I did not stop to think, or take notes, or even underline words. Perhaps I have just forgotten it. Or perhaps I rarely read anything that was above my pay grader (or pray grade, in the case of spiritual literature). It is such a nice feeling, to coast through things, to feel super smart because there are so few new elements, you can pick them up without stopping. Your brain never runs full, it processes the new information faster than your customary reading speed … because there isn’t a lot of new information.

I think this is pretty common, that we stop reading things that challenge us, and stick to the same interests. We can learn a little more and feel smart. But if we go outside our area of expertise, or above our pay grade, that is when we run into difficutleries. I probably shrank back and forgot the whole thing for most of my adult life. It is only recently I have begun to see these difficutleries as a good thing. And that is probably why I am in brainlove with people like Marcus Geduld and Robert Godwin, who don’t stop challenging themselves and exploring the Great Unknown (albeit in very different directions). It requires effort, yes, but that is not what really holds most of us back: It requires giving up the feeling of being smart, a sweet and addictive feeling.

To sum it up: We learn the most when we are outside our comfort zone, but not yet into the panic zone.

A little sci-fi by me!

The “cauldron” to the left is a nano-factory, able to produce a set range of objects by the use of ambient energy and trace materials. The glowing book on the pedestal is able to gradually change the brain function of those who spend enough time reading it. And the telephone to the right is able to resurrect the recently dead – at least some of the time. We also see a glimpse of the Energizer that fully recharges a sim in a matter of minutes using only electricity.

Kristi’s comment about the separation of future humans into knowers and know-nots made me fish out this short piece of sci-fi that I wrote for the game The Sims 2, to explain the appearance of Magic in the final expansion pack for that game. Set in the Sims universe, the people there are called sims, and obviously this is a work of fiction, not even intended to be true. After all, the future usually comes while we look the other way, right? ^_^


Artificial intelligence never lived up to its promises. The Age of Transcend therefore began around 2045, when adventurous sims began implanting multiple wireless computer interfaces in their brains. Through these, main parts of their brains had access to virtually unlimited knowledge, processing power, pure logic and funny cat pictures. At first, insanity and death was common, one often leading to the other. But the survivors used their greatly enhanced skills to solve the problems, and around 2050 it was becoming safe to become such a greatly augmented human. From now on, they used their superhuman skills to improve their superhuman skills, and by around 2055 had reached the level of “Weakly Godlike Superintelligence”. At this point, any discoveries and inventions they made were impossible to explain to a mere human, although they could certainly be demonstrated, and in a few cases even copied by slavishly following the template given by the Transcend.

It was also in 2055 that the Transcend, as they were now collectively named, invited anyone who wanted to join their rank. Perhaps surprisingly, most sims preferred to stay on a merely human level – or perhaps they just never got around to do anything about it. In any case, only a tiny minority joined the Transcend, although the number was more than an order of magnitude higher than the 144000 later bandied about by legends. Some historians think as many as one in thousand joined the Transcend, and it was invariably the most talented, adventurous and creative who did so. During this third phase, the Transcend had little to do with ordinary sims. Whatever they did, it took place in virtual realms, or in outer space, or in other dimensions. They left the world alone – and eventually, in 2060, they left the world altogether. After announcing “Our work here is complete”, on the night of Passover, 2060, all the Transcend disappeared bodily from Sim Earth and were never heard of again. Whether “here” referred to this planet, this galaxy, this universe or even this general type of universe, they were gone without a trace. Well, apart from the few mysterious inventions they had deigned to share with simkind five years ago, known from now on as “Transcend relics”. Intentionally, perhaps as some kind of joke on our expense, these objects were frequently made to look like arcane items from folklore: Wands, broomsticks, grimoires, cauldrons. But they also left behind a substantial medical knowledge, advanced robotics, and the technology of teleportation.

The world after the Transcend was a strange place: Bereft of almost all genius, it became a thoroughly mundane place, technologically stagnant yet prospering by the few crumbs fallen from the table of those who had left us behind.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” -Arthur C. Clarke.

“Any technology, no matter how primitive, is magic to those who don’t understand it.” -Florence Ambrose.